The Rhythm of Thought: Art, Literature, and Music after Merleau-Ponty
by Jessica Wiskus

Reviewed by David VanderHamm


Published by University of Chicago Press, 2013   |   168 pages

It is striking how many texts of European philosophy are published posthumously as unfinished or fragmentary texts. Often, these works are counted among a thinker’s most significant contribution, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, Edmund Husserl’s the Crisis of the European Sciences, or Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. If there is something unfortunate and sobering about such unfinished work, there is also something strangely compelling. The imperfections and incompletions of these texts resist the works’ reification into solidified artifacts or arguments. Instead, they present invitations to enter their processes, to engage with them just as they engage with the world. In The Rhythm of Thought, Jessica Wiskus takes Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible—another posthumously published, incomplete, and substantial work—as just such an invitation. In doing so, Wiskus adopts Merleau-Ponty’s own attitude towards the work of his philosophical predecessor, Husserl. Since a philosopher’s conclusions are often, Merleau-Ponty wrote, “merely the results of a progression which was transformed into a ‘work’ by the interruption” of death, subsequent readers should attempt to glimpse “what until the very end [their predecessor’s] thought was trying to think.”

The Rhythm of Thought weaves together discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy with analysis of Mallarmé’s poetry, Cézanne’s painting, Proust’s fiction, and Debussy’s music. The point here, however, is never an exegesis of Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic thought, or even a mapping of his philosophy onto the artworks under analysis. Instead, as Chapter 1 makes clear, Wiskus is responding to Merleau-Ponty’s call to provide “an indirect ontology” through an “intensive investigation of the arts.” In Merleau-Ponty’s sense, ontology is not merely something that philosophy does with art; “art as expression,” Wiskus notes, “aims at ontology—at elucidating the structure of being which is itself expression.” Wiskus’s project, then, is less an exploration of art, life, or philosophy than a persistent pursuit of the slippages between these artificial categories and the insights into an ontological substrate that such slippages might reveal.

Because she intentionally seeks out slippage and hidden relations between terms, Wiskus’s text is both difficult and delightful, full of words and concepts that refuse to keep their senses neatly partitioned. Her discussion of rhythm, a central concept throughout the text, can serve as a useful example of this approach. Rhythm is not, as is commonly thought, a discreet pattern of sounds; neither is it reducible to structural elements of meter or tempo. Rather, Wiskus suggests, rhythm is “the expression of silence that holds each articulation together.” Wiskus returns to this description repeatedly over the course of her text, working it over, kneading it, generalizing it, until she arrives at a description of rhythm as “a structure that binds the past and the present, subject and object, ideal and sensible; it holds together the ‘inside of the outside and the outside of the inside.’” Rhythm, she writes, is based on “silence—the unheard—transcendence.” Such deep, meaning-giving structure “lies at the origin of all art,” and makes her conception of rhythm far more than an extended musical metaphor.

Though Wiskus herself describes the 10 chapters as being grouped around the four concepts of noncoincidence (1-3), institution (5-7), the idea (8-9) and transcendence (10), in another sense the book seems to be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-5 take a given work of poetry, painting, literature or music as their topic, developing the book’s central concepts through their application to the works under review. Chapter 5, then, culminates in what can only be experienced as crisis. Having cycled through a discussion of works by Mallarmé, Cézanne, Proust, and Debussy, Wiskus arrives back at Cezanne with a barrage of earnest, urgent questions: “[A]re we condemned to view a life’s work…as necessarily incomplete…or even meaningless, since any understanding could only be developed in retrospect?…Are we always only operating from a silent hollow of being?…Can we never grasp what would lie at the center? Is there not a center?” From this almost desperate vantage, Wiskus’s remaining five chapters work through these questions through alternating discussions of Proust’s Á la recherché du temps perdue and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

The Rhythm of Thought is intense and rewarding, though it may take readers some time to adapt to Wiskus style sufficiently so as to be able to follow along and participate. Frequent recourse to the copious notes— though it does break up the flow of the text —will aid readers here. As one example, Wiskus admits on the opening page that Merleau-Ponty’s late writings have been characterized as “something close to that of the mystic’s vision.” This is true enough, but the most pertinent point on this matter is tucked away in the first note. There we find Wiskus’s refinement of this characterization of Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy through the quotation of another commentator, Richard Kearney, who contends that Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis was not on mysticism as such but rather “the project of phenomenology,” which often employs religious or spiritual language while still remaining distinct from mysticism as generally conceived. This is a crucial distinction in light of Wiskus’s subsequent appeals to transcendence and to the discussion of resurrection in the final chapter, and one that can easily be missed by an inattentive reader.

It is difficult to quantify an amount of necessary prior knowledge for engaging a work as wide-ranging as this. The level of musical detail Wiskus presents in the chapters on Debussy will certainly exceed many readers’ capacity for understanding, though the most technical passages are hardly essential to Wiskus’s broader points. Likewise, a conversance with the works analyzed here would be helpful, though is probably not necessary. Most helpful of all would be some familiarity with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy or the phenomenological tradition from which he draws, as Wiskus rarely sidetracks to historicize the ideas she is discussing. A potentially problematic area concerns Merleau-Ponty’s treatment of temporality, which is deeply indebted in Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness. Husserl’s conception of time is, very roughly, that any present experience includes ongoing processes of retention (the past maintained in the present) and protention (a potential future projected from within the present). This provides the starting point for Merlea-Ponty’s ideas on temporality, and as such directly pertains to Wiskus’s conception of rhythm. Though Wiskus’s project is in principle an extension and enactment of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas and not a historical account of their genesis, it is difficult for this reader to anticipate how well others might grasp Merlea-Ponty’s more existential, poetic approach to temporality without reference to Husserl’s prior contribution.

The Rhythm of Thought is an engrossing book. Wiskus’s philosophical acumen and depth of insight into the artworks under review is impressive. She maintains a balance that confounds many philosophers, neither treating art as fixed object for definition and description, nor as mere means to a philosophical end. As Merleau-Ponty describes the experience of viewing a painting: “rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with it.” Wiskus manages to see, hear, and read according to and with the works she richly engages, and readers would do well to approach her book in the same manner.

David VanderHamm is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His dissertation focuses on the social construction of virtuosity through discourses and displays of skill and musical labor in the 20th century. David is also active as a guitarist and teacher.

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